Tag Archives: Dave Hutton

So Toronto is going deeper into debt (and so is Saskatoon)

Does this sound at all like Saskatoon?  It was Toronto under Mel Lastman who felt he needed to freeze taxes.

Perks noted that Lastman froze property taxes during his first three years in office. During that time, the Toronto Transit Commission was rebuilding 18-year-old buses instead of buying new ones, and the backlog in road repairs was growing.

“We had a mountain of backlog. We were in a profound crisis. Between provincial downloading and Mel Lastman’s tax freeze, we had a giant hole. Now we’re catching up.”

This week’s flooding demonstrates the need for sturdy infrastructure, said Di Giorgio, who on Tuesday was visiting homeowners hit with flooded basements.

“When you talk to people, they’re very irate, and you can’t blame them. They’re really upset that this kind of thing would happen and they blame the city for not having proper infrastructure.”

Borrowing allows the city to do more capital projects each year, rather than put them off to future years, he said.

“To do things quicker, you have to go more into debt. I do think it’s okay to grow your debt a little bit at a time each year, because you do have to replace infrastructure.”

This is what Toronto’s debt is being spent on.

In 2011, on Ford’s insistence, the city froze property taxes. The next year he limited the increase to 2.5 per cent, in line with inflation.

About half of the borrowing was to pay for transit infrastructure, such as replacing worn-out vehicles. Other big-ticket infrastructure spending went to areas such as roads, parks and housing.

That is what happens when you put off infrastructure and transit spending.  Eventually it catches up to you and it’s exactly what we are doing here in Saskatoon and it will take a couple of terms to catch up which will mean more debt.

Holding the line on taxes is always popular but those costs don’t go away.  In Saskatoon it is our roads where we used to pay for but not longer do.  Doubt me?  Check out the 2012 Roads Report which gives funding options to city council.  It includes this line.

Although funding for paved roadways has, in general, increased over the past decade, from 2003 to 2008 the annual roadway budget only increased by 0.5% per year, while  the cost of treatments increased by 15.2% per year. This erosion of purchasing power, combined with the general ageing of the network, has resulted in a degradation of the roadway network since 2002.

The result? Check out this 2012 article in The StarPhoenix by David Hutton

Mike Gutek, the city’s infrastructure services manager, said old crumbling roads such as Koyl are a “victim of priority.” The road rates as “very poor” under the city’s ranking of which roads require resurfacing.

Roads are ranked based on condition and traffic volume. The city has 650,000 square feet of roads that are considered in “very poor” condition, but can treat 15,000 square feet per year under the current budget, Gutek said. Ten per cent of local roads in Saskatoon are rated as “very poor” and in danger of failing, according to the city’s latest assessment.

“(Koyl) has not failed. It’s in horrible shape, the asphalt is very old and it doesn’t drive that well,” Gutek said. “It’s really our worst condition (of road), but it hasn’t failed yet (and turned to gravel).”

Saskatoon has fallen way behind in road maintenance and repair as costs for fuel, asphalt and labour have skyrocketed.

Since 2003, the road repair budget has grown 31 per cent while the cost of fixing roads has jumped 216 per cent. But council declined last year to add a phased-in property tax increase over eight years to bring the annual roads budget up to the point where the city isn’t falling further behind annually. Instead, one-time funding was added for a number of individual projects.

City administration estimates $18.5 million per year is needed to maintain the current state of the roadway network. In 2012, roughly $9.5 million will be spent on roadway rehabilitation, including the discretionary funds.

Koyl is not in the city’s five-year road rebuilding plans and likely wouldn’t be fixed until the annual funding amount surpasses $18.5 million, city staff say.

Where does the money go?

The infrastructure department is tackling as priorities high-traffic roads that have completely failed or on the brink of turning to gravel, Gutek said. 

Council likes to pick on Mike Gutek but when they give him a fraction of what he needs each year, what are city staff supposed to do?  Year after year city council says that they hear that roads are our number one concern and instead hold the line on taxes and don’t add any more new money into roads.

So when does Saskatoon start to dig ourselves out this infrastructure hole that City Council has dug us into and how long will it take?  How much debt will we have to take on to pay for these years where council made a negative infrastructure investment.  As we have seen here and in Toronto, unpaid infrastructure bills come due with interest.

City of Saskatoon to seek exemption for international trade deal

This still boggles my mind.

Saskatoon should request an exemption to a large-scale free-trade agreement being negotiated between Canada and Europe, a city committee agreed.

City councillors, sitting as an executive committee, voted 5-4 Monday to seek a permanent exemption to the proposed Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, a free trade and economic integration pact between Canada and the 27 European Union countries that is in the final stages of negotiation.

The resolution still requires council approval in February and will face some difficulty with two right-of-centre councillors, Coun. Myles Heidt and Coun. Randy Donauer, absent at the committee Tuesday.

I know this will die in council with Heidt and Donauer’s return but still…

Access to government procurement at federal, provincial, municipal, regional and local governments, as well as Crown corporations and utilities, is Europe’s main goal in the pact. Saskatoon has seen interest from European firms on a small number of major infrastructure projects, including the $300-million Circle Drive South project, which drew a bid from a Spanish firm.

Cities only have to be concerned about the effect on construction contracts, not the takeover of city-owned utilities, according to a briefing from provincial officials, Jordan said

“I’m confident from the information I’ve received there’s not much need to be concerned about that aspect of it,” [Michael] Jordan said.

Okay, at least the city managers are thinking clearly on this one.

Coun. Charlie Clark questioned if the private sector could challenge the city to open up municipally operated services such as Access Transit, the lift-equipped bus service, or if city hall could no longer enact a local food first policy or a bottled water ban under the agreement.

“There’s enough unknowns about how this could impact the city and because we don’t have a seat at the table it’s best to request an exemption,” Clark said. “I think that as a democratically-elected city council we should make sure we can make the decisions we need to make to protect citizens and there’s no real benefits from what I can see for cities to be included — so it’s easier to be excluded.”

Can local municipalities actually be excluded under international trade agreements?  The truth is that on big projects like the bridges that we are building are being designed and built by international firms because of their complexity and scope and the consolidation of international design and engineering firms (which as a city we benefit from).   I also hate the idea that we need to protect local companies from international competition.  The reason we need to protect them is that we think as the city grows, they aren’t good enough.  Sometimes they won’t be good enough (which is why international firms exist and why there has been increased consolidation around the super engineering firms) but protecting them from competition doesn’t make them any better either.

Of course all of this was grandstanding because the city doesn’t even have a local procurement policy.

The bigger impact is the New West Partnership which will open up construction contracts over $200,000 to companies across the west.  It will have a far greater impact on small and medium businesses in this province than CETA will, yet that passed.

The Weekend In Sports

First the positives:

The negatives

  • Sure it is good to see the Houston Texans get an offense but boy do the Pittsburgh Steelers look old.  It’s early and you don’t want to count the Steelers out but I can’t help but wonder if there won’t be a drastically different looking Steelers roster for next season.
  • Let’s not talk about what happened in Green Bay.  Denver is not a very talented team yet.  Shanahan’s last couple of drafts were horrible and the only decent player that McDaniel’s brought in was Eric Decker.  It’s going to be a while until they are back on top.
  • What can you say about the Saskatchewan Roughriders other than they are not a very good team.  Grandpa coming back gave them a spark but I have been saying since last season that just because Ken Miller was a good assistant coach, it doesn’t make him a good personnel man.  That and I have been terrified of Brendan Taman running the team ever since they brought him in.  Look at what he did to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and how long it took them to recover.
  • Dear Buffalo Bills.  You lost to the Cincinnati Bengals.  Really?  Rookie QB, lame duck coach, apathetic fans and you still lost to them.  You should be ashamed.

Contextless Links

I know what you are thinking, when did the Contextless Links return?  Well, right now.  I am going to be using them again as a place to empty out my notebook every day as a way to give some life to the site. If I post them here, I can also find them again when I need them.  Still undecided if I will use Windows Live Writer or have delicious dump them here once a day. 

The City of Saskatoon Spending Review

Saskatoon’s city council decided to do a spending review on what to cut.  One city councillor described their efforts as “courageous”.  That’s not a word I would have used.  After many meetings, too much debate, and questionable live tweeting, the final results are known.  A paltry $1.7 million. 

Here are the cuts as gathered by Dave Hutton.  Commentary is mine.

Cuts:

Voice over internet phone savings: $151,600

Let’s hope they don’t use our company.  My work phone drops calls all of the time.

Affordable housing program reduction: $250,000

Beyond disappointed with this.  It shows a lack of vision and leadership to cut this.

Eliminate satellite office space for community associations: $20,200

Cut Victoria Park skateboard security: $7,000

Okay, there was a need for this because kids were being beaten up and charged a “user fee” by bullies and kiddie gangs.  Now we decide to cut it back.  It kind of works like the Saskatoon Police safer streets initiative.  Once you stop providing the security presence, the violence and bullying will start again.  The other option is just to subcontract out the operation of the park to the bullies.  At least the city would get a cut.

Reduce newspaper advertising: $50,000

How will council respond to Henry Dayday now?  Also, which newspaper are you cutting advertising in?  It better be Planet S. 

Close Little Chief community police station: $104,000

This is a really good idea.  It wasn’t being used and I can see a boutique or specialty store coming and doing something great with the space.  If that doesn’t happen, Riversdale BID could be housed out of it.  It would also make a great location for a New York style hot dog cart (which I can’t eat anymore).

Reduce 2012 police budget from eight to six officers: $147,300

Remove purchase of a marked police vehicle: $32,600

I really didn’t like this.  Either the city needs eight police officers or it needs six.  If it needs eight, then you get eight.  If it needs six, then I find it frustrating that two token positions were proposed to be cut.  I know that is how “it” is done but I don’t like it.  Same with the police car.

Reduce park maintenance staff: $120,000

This seemed like a genuine cut and I didn’t like it.  I spent a lot of time in Saskatoon parks and I notice when things are broken and I appreciate the work they do when things are looking really good.  I think this cut is a mistake.

Mendel Art Gallery cut: $5,700

We just gave them $20 million to build a new building but we scaled back the operating grant by $5700.  Wow.

Fee Hikes:

Discounted transit pass : $159,000

I was shocked by this as I thought it was a provincial program to begin with.  The Ministry of Social Services actually advertised this on their website.  Personally I think the Province of Saskatchewan should pick up the bill for the entire program.  I applaud the city for starting the program but we should not be stuck with the bill.

Security false alarm fees: $195,300
Leisure centres: $92,000
Street closures: $12,000
Development permits: $120,000
Sign permits: $14,000
Tax and assessment searches: $18,300
Allotment gardens: $500
Development applications: $120,000
Organic recycling green bins: $24,000
Building inspections: $200,000

Total: $1.7-million

Sean Shaw has a post on the cuts as well.  In it he reveals a shocking truth – he actually read all of the reports.  In my defense, I have been busy taking Mark to football practice every night for a couple of hours which is prime NFL Network report reading time.  The next service review will be just before the next civic election in four year which means that Mark will still be playing football.  If he does not go on to play for either the Huskies or the Hilltops, I will be sure to read the next batch of reports in 2019.  Dave Hutton has both a story and a post on the cuts.

Hutton’s story had one new fee being discussed.  The sound barrier fee.

The lengthiest discussion Wednesday surrounded an administration proposal to move the payment of the construction of sound walls to homeowners via a local improvement levy. Currently, the city’s infrastructure branch budgets $576,000 annually to construct sound walls based on a prioritized list. There is $37 million in sound wall construction outstanding. The walls are now built in new areas or as part of road construction projects, but weren’t for many years.

Coun. Tiffany Paulsen said "logistical and practical issues" make such a fee a bad idea. The cost of a sound wall per lot averages $50,000, council heard. Even if the total is cost-shared by the city or by an entire neighbourhood, it’s still a substantial cost to the homeowner, Paulsen said.

"It’s one thing to have a local levy of $200," she said. "It’s another to have a local levy of $50,000. This is a whole new ball game."

Umm, Coun. Paulsen, what about the $2250 (plus GST) levy for each home that has to have city water lines replaced.  While neighbourhoods have done well without sound barriers, I have to “flush my system” by running my cold water for FIVE MINUTES each morning to ensure it’s safe.  When (and if) the city decides to replace the water mains on my street, each of us will get a $2250 (plus GST) bill for it.  So the city will cover a $50,000 bill for each home for sound reasons while it won’t cover $2250 a home for clean drinking water. 

It would be humorous if only they weren’t running the city I lived in.

The deficit we imagine vs. the deficit we have

The New York Times is reporting on the deficit and debt ceiling fight that is happening right now.

Eventually, the country will have to confront the deficit we have, rather than the deficit we imagine. The one we imagine is a deficit caused by waste, fraud, abuse, foreign aid, oil industry subsidies and vague out-of-control spending. The one we have is caused by the world’s highest health costs (by far), the world’s largest military (by far), a Social Security program built when most people died by 70 — and to pay for it all, the lowest tax rates in decades.

To put it in budgetary terms, the deficit we imagine comes largely from discretionary spending. The one we have comes partly from discretionary spending but mostly from everything else: tax rates, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

It made me think of an article that Dave Hutton wrote this week while covering City Council’s executive committee meeting.  It starts with city manager Murray Totland appearing to give political direction to city council.

In a report to the city’s executive committee Monday, city manager Murray Totland said there is "growing sentiment" among residents that the city needs to refocus the programs and services it offers and "get back to the basics."

"We can sit back and reflect a bit about what programs and services matter most to us," Totland said. "It’s just to focus and maybe rethink our priorities. What matters most?"

It goes on with this.

Coun. Maurice Neault called for "zero-based budgeting" aimed at holding the line on taxes. "Once we get going, we’ll be amazed and surprised by the result," Neault said.

"Each of the things that we might want to give up has a role in the city," Coun. Charlie Clark said.

Saying it will be a "gut-wrenching" process, Coun. Myles Heidt said "something’s gotta go" to get to a two or three per cent hike. Council increased property taxes 3.99 per cent last year, but weren’t able to make fundamental changes some councillors called for during two nights of budget deliberations.

Taxes have risen an average of 3.7 per cent each year since 2005.

"Let’s not sugar-coat this," Heidt said. "It could be programs, it could be staff, it could be anything. We’ve got to make some decisions now."

Where to start.  First of all most of the spending that has generated controversy has been capital spending, sans curbside recycling which comes in at a little over $4 million per year.  It’s not an insignificant amount but this is a city of over $200,000 and things cost sometimes.  So as a response to increased capital spending, some on city council have decided that the best way to go is to cut operational spending… on the political advice of the city manager. 

Here is something that gets lost in these debates.  Sometimes its takes courage to spend money and you know what, sometimes it takes guts to say that things are important to us as a city, even if it increases the tax rate.  Somewhere around the time that George H. Bush said “no new taxes” and today spending on government programs has the ultimate evil and instead of being a just society, we have become a society that has adopted a narrative that says, I have it so I deserve it.   We saw it during the 2000 presidential campaign where Al Gore and George W. Bush fell over themselves to tell Americans that the surplus belonged to them and they knew best what to spend it on.  The American public spent the money on cheap consumer goods imported from China while at the same time the United States had to borrow heavily to find two wars and is faced with a massive infrastructure deficit on their own.

I was reminded of this Paul Krugman column from earlier this year.  It was written in the aftermath of the Gabrielle Gifford assassination attempt so the language is a little raw but he has some relevance to the debate over how the city spends it’s money.

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft.That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.

This deep divide in American political morality — for that’s what it amounts to — is a relatively recent development. Commentators who pine for the days of civility and bipartisanship are, whether they realize it or not, pining for the days when the Republican Party accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state, and was even willing to contemplate expanding it. As many analysts have noted,the Obama health reform — whose passage was met with vandalism and death threats against members of Congress — was modeled on Republican plans from the 1990s.

Being Canadian, of course there is middle ground, we are all about the middle ground but there is a view that says that the smaller our civic responsibilities are, the better off we are as a city.  As former councillor Elaine Hnatyshyn writes,

In today’s SP (June 21/11) it is reported that council will take a ‘gut-wrenching’ review of services. Back to basics seems to be the coming theme for budget preparation for 2012, a civic election year. Would I rather have services necessary to my daily living over debt and debt repayment? Do I want my roads repaired? Street cleaning? Snow Removal? Or do I want pay to maintain River Landing, the Shaw Olympic Pool, Art Gallery of Saskatchewan . . . . .

In some ways Hnatyshyn’s comments make a lot of sense.  There is a pothole on Avenue E (between 34th and 33rd) that is so large that it will have it’s own MP in the next redrawing of electoral boundaries.  It has done some damage to quite a few vehicles when the shadows camouflage it’s true depth but I disagree when she talks about River Landing or a new pool and Art Gallery. 

Wendy and I are doing okay financially.  I work for the Salvation Army and they have treated me well.  Working for a non-profit organization is no way to get rich.  Wendy works for Safeway and is lucky to have been part of the old guard there where the salary is still livable.  We also own our home and pay around $600/month for mortgage and taxes (about $150 more a month in taxes than when we bought it).  Despite doing okay, some of the derided extra services the city provides, make a big difference in our standard of living.  Is Mayfair Pool an essential service the city should be providing?  No it’s not.  It’s a money pit but tell that to my sons who name it as one of the best things about their summer.  Like most people in Saskatoon, we don’t have a pool and so these public spaces serve as an important roll in giving those who don’t have the resources, access to important services.  Have you seen the mayhem at the waterpark at River Landing many days?  That’s not essential either but it provides a free public gathering spot for thousands of people everyday.  Starting tonight the city will be full of the sounds of the SaskTel Jazz Festival.  In addition to crown corporation sponsorship dollars going to subsidize the event, funding agencies include the City of Saskatoon and Canadian Heritage, money that goes to help subsidize the event, keeps ticket prices down and helps keep the free stages going.  You know, so more people can come down and enjoy it despite not being able to afford it.  This isn’t a new concept.  Years ago the citizens of Saskatoon decided to keep commercial and residential development away from the part of South Saskatchewan River valley and eventually decided to create the Meewasin Valley Authority, mostly because we realized that a riverbank that was open to all of us, was important.  That initiative was started by Saskatoon’s City Council in 1974 and has become one of Saskatoon’s crown jewels.

The Art Gallery of Saskatchewan Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan is not an essential service but what is the value of an art gallery to the citizens of Saskatoon.  As a kid growing up in Calgary, we very little money after my dad left but I remember being taken to the Glenbow Museum (which uses over $3 million in govt funding each year).  I still have vivid memories of models, displays, and information as we would wander through the galleries of history, politics, and art.  I had no idea at the time but that place started me off on a lifetime of learning and curiosity.   My son has a passion for design and architecture which started from seeing an exhibit of Clifford Weins at the Mendel Art Gallery a couple of years ago.

So what does a Saskatoon look like without the Meewasin Valley Trail, Harry Bailey Aquatic Centre, Mayfair Pool, or the architecture of University and Broadway bridges?  Does 20th Street look as hopeful today without the city redesigning and rebuilding sidewalks?  How much higher are rent rates without a city that invests heavily into affordable housing.  As Richard Florida writes in the Rise of the Creative Class, some of the cities in the United States that are struggling the most have the lowest tax rates.  No one wants to live there, no one wants to work there.  One of thing that many cities who are growing and vibrant have in common is that they do have higher taxes but it’s citizens believe that they are getting good value from living there and enjoy the extra services and amenities.   What’s crazy about this budget and spending debate is that Saskatoon has low taxes and is providing some extra value.  By deciding that we have to make “gut-wrenching” cuts and limit operational spending to 2% (or inflation), some councillors are saying that the city’s role in shaping the city is done.  I don’t agree.  There is a role for government to shape our city and provide a city that all of it’s citizens can enjoy.  Sometimes it takes money to spend money to make a city better and more liveable.  Yesterday I linked to a video about Helsinki, Finland and as a video said, they had the courage to take risks and make changes.  Hopefully city council will be able to find it.

I’m angry at the government as well

Cosmo Industries is upset with the City of Saskatoon City Council.  I am to but for totally different reasons.  Saskatoon doesn’t have a minor league ball team, the Riders don’t hold their training camp in Saskatoon anymore, there is a massive pothole on a street I drive to work on.  The list goes on.

Cosmo’s complaint seems to revolve around the fact that they have a contract for paper collection in the city and that contract is now in jeopardy because of the cities move to curbside recycling.  As The StarPhoenix’s Dave Hutton writes.

Cosmo issued a news release Tuesday, stating that "adults with intellectual disabilities are shut out from benefiting from the future economic and population growth in Saskatoon."

In a report, the city guarantees Cosmo 7,800 tonnes of paper fibre each year for the next seven years, the remainder of a 10-year contract. The amount of paper fibre Cosmo has received from the depots has ranged from roughly 6,500 in 2005 to 7,800 tonnes in 2010, around 41 per cent of total paper fibre in the waste stream. The city projected the amount to decrease because of more households signing up for private curbside collection and a move to digital media.

When a curbside system is installed in 2012, the depot system will remain intact, but the amount of paper coming from the depots is expected to decrease substantially. In a report, the city says it will provide the 7,800 tonnes to Cosmo by delivering the remainder of paper from depots and large organizations. The city also says it will ask bidders to provide pricing for the city to buy raw paper fibre from them and deliver it to Cosmo to meet the contract requirements.

Ken Gryschuk, community relations manager for Cosmo, said the organization projected the amount of paper received through depots to increase to 10,000 tonnes through 2018.

They are so upset they are not threatening to sue but want to talk to their lawyers about it.

Gryschuk said he still thinks there is time to amend the agreement. He said Cosmo "is not contemplating a lawsuit" but is getting a legal opinion on the status of the contract with the city.

"I do not believe that this is over," he said. "What was done last night does not reflect the will of the people of Saskatoon."

I am a part of a non-profit who deals with the Government of Saskatchewan and one thing I have learned is that essentially I work at the leisure of the Government of Saskatchewan and can be shut down or impacted negatively at any time.  This week I have spent pouring over budget information and made the hard decision to (hopefully temporarily) cut positions at the shelter.  It’s hard and it is largely a result in a government policy shift in how they want to handle their department.  The Centre has lost funding for programs before and I am sure it will lose funding for programs in the future.  Other agencies have gone through the same thing.  While I understand the frustration that those who run Cosmo Industries must feel, it is the same for everyone.  Market conditions changed and Cosmo is going to have to adjust.

The same for us.  Housing FIrst programs are dealing with homelessness far better than shelters have and so we prepare for the day when sheltering is going to be a lot less important than assisted living and SROs.  It’s been difficult in other cities as at the Booth Centre in Calgary where a change in the environment has been met with layoffs

It’s a hard decision for city council but what Cosmo Industries wanted would have frozen the city in time.  Here is how Gerry Klein sees it.

The monkey-wrench in the works, however, is a belief by Cosmo industries that to move on could cost the organization access to the paper that makes it work. To allay these fears, Coun. Lorje in January proposed – and council unanimously agreed – that any new system should be designed to protect Cosmo’s interests.

That turned the debate to whether the status quo was protection enough. Half of council and the civic administration believed that guaranteeing Cosmo a minimum volume of paper – the 7,800 tonnes or so it now receives – should allow the enterprise to continue by maintaining the current level of employment for its clients.

Cosmo, however, wants a bigger cut of the action. If this were about any other recyclable material, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much. But paper is where the money is in recycling.

Every non-profit wants to do more to help it’s clients.  Without a doubt Cosmo could hire more people and help more if they got up to 10,000 tonnes of paper a year but all non-profits can do the same if given more resources.  Cosmo is going to have to diversify, expand, retool, and reimagine themselves.  They have had a great ride, built a great legacy, and have goodwill in the community.  Trashing city council for not allowing them to continue their monopoly isn’t the way to go.  Figuring out their next market is what they need to be doing.

The StarPhoenix Community Bloggers

TheStarPhoenix Community BloggersThe StarPhoenix has been a part of my life since we moved to Saskatoon in 1984 from Calgary.  In fact I think it was a big reason why my mom chose Saskatoon over Moose Jaw.  She literally dreaded the idea of not having a big city paper.  It was there for me everyday growing up during it’s good times and their bad times (someone in parole say hi to Conrad Black for me) and now Mark grabs my Kindle every night and sits down and reads it before supper.  It’s the starting point of my day at work and once I am done with that, the first site I check out at night is Dave Hutton’s City Hall Notebook once I boot up my computer. Outside of breathing and eating, it’s been the longest running constant in my life.

When I was asked to put a logo and link on my blog back to The StarPhoenix and be a part of their community bloggers, I was thrilled.  While I have always rejected logos and link requests like this, it’s my paper, my hometown and my community.

Of course with The StarPhoenix being a print publication, never let me know the community bloggers section was active.  So after seeing the referrals in my log files, checking it out, reading their horrible description of my blog, grabbing a screen shot of the blogger graphic, and cropping it, we are good to go.  At least they spelled my name correctly, which is more than what CBC has ever been able to manage.

To kick this off, I should reciprocate with a link to their excellent feature, 52 Things to Love About Saskatoon, an ongoing feature about what makes Saskatoon a great place to live.  They are only eight weeks into it but I agree with the first seven and am about to check out the Park Cafe this week.

Making Saskatoon a Winter City

Saskatoon's Ice Cycle 2011For those of you who missed it, Ice Cycle was two Sundays ago.  It’s basically an event where hard core cyclists taunt the weather and risk getting pneumonia while going for a bike ride in extreme cold.  Mother Nature doesn’t enjoy getting taunted and met them with –40 degree weather.

Now personally I think each and every participant in Ice Cycle should have been given a court ordered psychiatric examination for going for a recreational bike ride in that weather but I love being in a city where these kind of events are held.  We were at the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market shortly after the ride and it was packed with bike riders trying to warm up and thaw out their cheeks enough to complete full sentences.  Wendy joked that the coffee vendors at the Farmer’s Market could have charged $100 for a cup of coffee and people would have still paid it.

Dave Hutton asks Is Saskatoon a Winter City and explores some ideas with city councillor Charlie Clark.

Much of the city’s architecture is bland, a hodge podge of styles that don’t represent the climate or lift spirits when the sky is overcast. Office towers and taller downtown buildings trap wind and throw it on to the sidewalk or cast shadows and block the sun.

There remains a dire lack of covered bus shelters and it often takes long periods of time to clear snow from bus stops, forcing people to wait on the street. Those who congregate at the downtown bus mall must seek refuge in stores on bitterly cold days.

Snowstorms are a nuisance, winter a plague.

"I think people view winter as an endurance test," said Coun. Charlie Clark in an interview at the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market, where a modest afternoon crowd of young families played on the ice slide and ice ping pong table while admiring snow sculptures.

"As a prevailing kind of perception, winter is something that you get through."

Last year, Clark brought forward the idea of freezing the South Saskatchewan River for winter recreation through diverting the warm water expelled from the Queen Elizabeth Power Station into a district heating system.

This week, he trudged down to the river’s edge south of the power station to show the idea is feasible. There, numerous tracks can be seen across the river and snowmobiles heard farther south. At its edge, where the ice breaks to reveal its depth, at least two metres of thick ice is revealed.

There are engineering problems to overcome, but at its root the idea is a way to bring life to what can be a depressing time -to live with the climate, not in spite of it, Clark said.

In many northern European cities, businesses have made efforts to extend the outdoor season for socializing and cafe-sitting by using overhead freestanding heaters and offering blankets, cushions and sheepskins on public benches, Clark said.

I don’t think one can make –40 liveable or enjoyable.  My face froze from the time it took me to walk from the car behind the Farmer’s Market to the front of the Farmer’s Market while on Saturday we went down and I was wearing a fleece jacket and felt fine.  While I enjoyed both trips down, I enjoyed one trip a whole lot more.  Despite the weather, I think there are some things that Saskatoon can do to make it more winter friendly and I think it has more to do with cold weather civic zoning and setbacks.  I think part of it has to do with us rediscovering living in our communities and it’s something that we have lost.

Growing up in Lawson Heights, the rink behind Lawson Heights School was always open and cleared off with the mud room of the school being opened up by the community association.  There were often nights when hot chocolate was served.  Playing minor hockey, we had several season of practice behind the old Wilson School in City Park because of it’s warm up shack.  I remember practicing at –30 and it wasn’t a big deal.  We had a lot of breaks in the warming shack, there was hot chocolate for us, coffee for the parents, and lot’s of stories reminding us about how our parents played outside in –80 degree cold while sharing half the rink with hungry polar bears. 

Those games and practices were replaced with ice time at Gemini 4 arenas.  The food was better and the locker rooms bigger but so were the fees and within a short time kids stopped learning to play hockey at the local rink but rather learned the game from EA Sports.

I remember what a hassle it was to keep the Lawson Heights School warm up shack open which is why I am so impressed that the Mayfair/Hudson Bay Park Community Association has opened up the warming shack at Henry Kelsey School for public skating.  Mark uses it a fair bit and we do pilgrimage a couple of times a winter down to the Meewasin skating rink beside the Bessborough Hotel.

I am not sure that I am on board with the idea of freezing the South Saskatchewan River solid but some heaters on the Meewasin Trail at strategic points (near the washrooms at Lawson Heights, the Weir, the Mendel Art Gallery dock, behind the Bessborough, and a couple along winter landing, as well as some along the east side of the river south of the university would be a nice touch).  Some heated bus shelters would also be a great step in actually getting people out of the house and using city transit.  As the article says, the bus mall isn’t exactly winter friendly but for as bad as that it, several stops are in front of open areas that have no shelter from the wind (or sun in the summer) in any direction.  Sean Shaw has another idea that is worth looking into and that is doing what is popular in many cities and that is creating a Blackberry/Android/iPhone/Ovi/web app that allows one to track in real time where city busses are.  Regina has rolled out a web version but once the data is there, creating the apps isn’t that hard.  Their system even allows for SMS updates which is fantastic for the non-smartphone segment of the market.

Finally at WinterShines, it showed that there is a demand for a place for people to congregate and be social in the winter.  The Farmer’s Market was a perfect spot for that and hopefully a profitable time for the merchants (including the vendor who charged Wendy $2 for a watered down hot chocolate made from nothing from a bit of Carnation Hot Chocolate and water from the dish washer hose and sold me a coffee that was so stale that I tossed it out) who saw an increase in crowds looking at their wares.  City Council has asked the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market to stay open for longer days and hours in the past and I would love to see that come true (at work we head down quite often and sadly we are sometimes the only ones down there for lunch so I don’t know if it is economically feasible).  The one part of the equation that Hutton doesn’t bring up is the almost mythical River Landing Village (or whatever Victory Major Investments is going to call it).  You have the possibility there of having three winter friendly locations all within walking distance of each other (Meewasin Skating Rink, River Landing Village, Saskatoon Farmer’s Market).  While it will take some time, there is the chance that higher density in the south downtown core could really reinvent our public spaces downtown making what once was a one week festival into a winter long playground and I think I’d be okay with that.

Density in downtown Saskatoon

Dave Hutton has a good article on population density in downtown Saskatoon.

That’s the 10,000-person question. The city set a goal to have 10,000 people living in the centre of the city by 2025 in its last major downtown plan more than a decade ago, with the potential imagined for 3,600 new housing units that would attract 5,500 more people.

In 1986, the population of the central business district was around 2,500, according to census data. Today, as the city sets out to draft yet another plan for the downtown, the population remains roughly the same, city demographers say.

If City Park south of Queen Street, the south downtown and the warehouse district are included in the area — as they were when the city set the 10,000-person goal — the population jumps to an estimated 4,400.

City incentive programs and millions of dollars in public investment to beautify the downtown have in recent years attracted a number of chic condo developments, led by a building frenzy in 2005, and began a shift to a younger, more cosmopolitan downtown.

In the last seven years, a number of new developments — the upscale King George, the Rumley Warehouse, Parkville Manor, the Riverfront condos, the Second Avenue Lofts and the Fairbanks Morse warehouse conversion — have added 450 new housing units to the downtown, well below the roughly 150 units per year needed to reach the city’s objective but the beginning signs, at least, of change.

The Boulevard of Missed Deadlines

Dave Hutton of The StarPhoenix documents the missed deadlines that have defined the Lake Placid project at River Landing.  Hutton has a story on the latest deadline but it can be summed up in one paragraph.

Six months ago, Lake Placid CEO Michael Lobsinger and Nasser, backed by a long list of businesspeople, stood in front of council and said they expected financing to be in place imminently with shovels in the ground within six weeks.